Fire On The Mountain

Brian Mockenhaupt (thanks, Dan Stockman): Near the end of June, the weather patterns over Arizona shift. Wet air from Mexico flows in from the south, replacing the dry air that pushes in from the southwest during the spring. This is the summer monsoon, from the Arabic word mausim, for season: a shift in the wind. Thunderstorms gather along the Mogollon Rim, a 200-mile escarpment that stretches across central Arizona at the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. As they build, the storms suck in desert heat and moist air and then move out over lower-lying areas, where they dump inches of rain.

Last summer, on Friday, June 28, one of the first thunderstorms of the season gathered along the Mogollon Rim, but because the season was young, the storm didn’t draw much moisture from the newly arriving Mexican air. Instead, it arose mainly as an unstable swirling mass of hot and cold air, a turbulent mix that generated 100-mph updrafts within the clouds.

From the Mogollon Rim, the storm moved west. As it did, its turbulence rammed and scraped ice crystals together in the storm clouds. Atoms in the clouds stripped electrons from one another and generated an electrical field—the perfect conditions for lightning. Most lightning jumps between or within clouds, but sometimes a tiny filament of charged particles streams down and meets with oppositely charged particles that are drawn up to them from an elevated point on the Earth’s surface: a tree on a mountaintop, for example. As soon as the gap is closed, a light switch is turned on, and the filament glows: electricity surges in massive amounts between the two points, creating a plasma channel that can heat the surrounding air to more than 50,000 degrees, five times hotter than the surface of the sun.


Justin Heckert: I heard that the clown would never say a word. That he barely ever spoke, even to friends. That he chose to communicate through song, and all of his songs were sad. He was a really sad clown, sadder than all the others, and whenever he had something to say, it could only be cast through the baritone of his beautiful voice. Singing a cover of Lorde’s “Royals” had made him a famous clown, but he was still a shy clown, awkward and often timid in his surroundings. His reputation followed him like strings on balloons. He didn’t love people. He was cranky. He was sometimes hard to work with. He was known to pace silently onstage before he sang; he was known to glower; he recoiled at bright lights. He bristled at trivialities, like where to set his lantern. He had learned that to be seen in public was to make some people scared. He wore no big red nose, no goofy nimbus of hair, no long clown shoes that might make someone laugh if he slipped on a banana peel. He wasn’t just creepy, with dark eyes set off by white makeup that coated his face — he was straight-up scary, with a bald head and three black poof-balls dotting his pale white outfit, with a chiffon collar outlined in black; and he was almost 7 feet tall, and thin. No one could ever remember a time when he smiled, not even once, which can’t be said of even the most evil clown. His name — a name that evoked the last part of the rain, a word as gloomy as the clouds it came from — didn’t help.

Letter To The Editor

A few well-distilled thoughts from our colleague Russ Rymer:

It would be encouraging to think, as Jonathan Mahler contends in “When ‘Long-Form’ Is Bad Form” (Op-Ed, Jan. 25), that long-form writing is a “cult” so pervasive as to be the “journalistic environment we’re living in.” He suggests that it is so powerful that it may have led to a woman’s death.

However, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, the closeted transgender woman supposedly victimized by bad narrative practice, could as easily have been hounded to suicide by a vicious tweet as by the somewhat longish article that Mr. Mahler cites.

Long form may be fetishized in hashtags and “artisanal” websites, but that, too, speaks to the form’s embattled status. Mr. Mahler is right to fear a moral cost as long form’s methods degenerate. Few among long form’s recent celebrators could define what it actually is (hint: it isn’t necessarily long), and those who still ardently practice its combination of searching metaphor, hard reporting and narrative discipline are forced into shrinking news holes in fewer and fewer prominent venues, despite the efforts of some very good websites to counter the corrosion.

The true prevailing (and murderous) journalistic genre today is simplistic assertion glibly made — a cult not of length, but of haste.

Tony Dorsett Is Losing His Mind

Zac Crain:

It was January 3, 1983, the last day of the NFL’s strike-shortened season, and Tony Dorsett’s Dallas Cowboys were losing to the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football. A fumbled punt had the Cowboys trapped deep in their own territory, the ball a few inches outside the end zone.

And the Cowboys were out-manned. Fullback Ron Springs didn’t hear what play they were going to run, so he was still on the sideline, leaving only 10 Cowboys on the field and Dorsett all alone in the backfield.

The Vikings were in their goal-line defense, bunched up around the line of scrimmage, gunning for a safety.

Do you remember? Tony Dorsett does.

The call was for a run—“Dive 21,” Dorsett says—that would take Dorsett straight up the gut of the defense, between center Tom Rafferty and guard Herb Scott.

“When you’re backed up that far, you just want to tighten up your chinstrap a little bit, because you know they know you can’t get too tricky, too fancy,” Dorsett says. “You just figure, I’m gonna get a good shot, so just get ready for it.”


Marisa Kwiatkowski: A woman and three children who claimed to be possessed by demons. A 9-year-old boy walking backward up a wall in the presence of a family case manager and hospital nurse.

Gary police Capt. Charles Austin said it was the strangest story he had ever heard.

Austin, a 36-year veteran of the Gary Police Department, said he initially thought Indianapolis resident Latoya Ammons and her family concocted an elaborate tale as a way to make money. But after several visits to their home and interviews with witnesses, Austin said simply, “I am a believer.”

Not everyone involved with the family was inclined to believe its incredible story. And many readers will find Ammons’ supernatural claims impossible to accept.

But, whatever the cause of the creepy occurrences that befell the family — whether they were seized by a systematic delusion or demonic possession — it led to one of the most unusual cases ever handled by the Department of Child Services. Many of the events are detailed in nearly 800 pages of official records obtained by The Indianapolis Star and recounted in more than a dozen interviews with police, DCS personnel, psychologists, family members and a Catholic priest.

Ammons, who swears by her story, has been unusually open. While she spoke on condition her children not be interviewed or named, she signed releases letting The Star review medical, psychological and official records that are not open to the public — and not always flattering.

Furthermore, the family’s story is made only more bizarre because it involves a DCS intervention, a string of psychological evaluations, a police investigation and, ultimately, a series of exorcisms.

It’s a tale, they say, that started with flies.

All That Survives Is A 2,283-Word Prologue

You have to read S.L. Price on Richard Ben Cramer’s unfinished work. It’ll get you fired up.

Time now to speak of writers. We are, most of us, a particularly cramped breed, gunning for little victories: the newest wrinkle, the most telling detail, the juiciest quote, the phrase or paragraph or — please, God — page that approaches the song in our grasping, caffeine-riddled minds. Writers are selfish. Writers judge. Writers trust words more than people. There’s a reason writer and neurotic so often end up in the same sentence.

American Dad

Michael J. Mooney:

When Rafael Cruz walks into the VIP room at the River Plantation Country Club, there’s  a  spontaneous round of applause.

People who were sipping strawberry punch and nibbling on cheese and crackers put down their plates and cups and gravitate toward the bespectacled 74-year-old pastor. He has just arrived in Conroe, a suburb north of Houston.

The room is full of conservative politicians and powerful campaign donors. There are elected judges, state representatives, and candidates for various public offices. Standing at a table in the corner: former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Making small talk with a couple from Houston: Barbara Cargill, the chair of the Texas Board of Education. But everyone here wants to talk to Rafael. They want to shake his hand and have their pictures taken with him. They want to thank him for all he’s done, for the beliefs he espouses, for the way he raised his son. They tell him they are praying for him, and for Ted.

Throughout it all, Rafael maintains a gracious—if uncomfortable—smile. He takes business cards. He tries to learn names, and the names of spouses. He sees someone he recognizes and reminisces about a campaign he worked on years ago against Lloyd Bentsen. A younger man compliments Cruz’s keen memory. A woman tells him, “We’re blessed to have you with us tonight.”

Kidd Kraddick’s Big Secret

Jamie Thompson:

On the last night of his life, Kidd Kraddick picked out a stranger on a street corner in the French Quarter. It was a broiling evening last July in New Orleans. Kraddick had just left an oyster bar and had spotted the man selling pirated DVDs out of his trunk. Kraddick’s small entourage, a collection of friends and business partners, walked past the young man, nodding politely. But Kraddick stopped.

What are you doing? Why are you selling these? Don’t you know that’s illegal?

Kraddick’s friends, waiting for him, were annoyed, eager to get on with their evening. But that’s what made Kraddick one of the most successful radio hosts in the country—always asking questions, familiar with strangers, forever in search of a story. For decades, he had been plucking people out of crowds and putting them on the air, sometimes even giving them jobs. Kidd Kraddick in the Morning, broadcast from Kraddick’s own studio in Irving, was a ratings juggernaut that was syndicated across the country. He’d built that radio empire by taking an interest in normal people like the DVD hawker, changing their lives.

Lately, though, Kraddick had been making changes in his own life. At 53, he’d proposed to his girlfriend, who was 21 years younger. He’d apologized to his 23-year-old daughter for using her life as material on his show, sometimes without thinking about how it affected her. He had also begun to craft a succession plan to keep his radio show and his beloved charity operating after he was gone.

Susan Cox Is No Longer Here

Justin Heckert with a heartbreaking story on a woman who didn’t want to die alone:

This is something that happened during a long, dry summer, and if I don’t write it down now I fear it might haunt me forever. My hope is that the woman from the hospital room will eventually let go of my thoughts, so that I no longer see her peeling fingernails and the black bandanna tied around her head, her ruby slippers and that blue monkey with beads for eyes and a single black stitch for a smile. I can still hear the last thing she said to me, in her tired, smoker’s voice, and I wish to God I could forget it.


Andre Dawkins Has A Story

And Brandon Sneed tried his best to write it, even though he wasn’t sure he should. This brings up a good question that Brandon wrestled with during the reporting and writing process. At what point should we give up and walk away from a story? When you have an unwilling subject, what are the compelling reasons that make you write a feature story anyway? (Yes, “My editor made me” counts as an answer.)